For Victorians, 'better' didn't just mean richer

For all the economic hardheadedness, 19th-century morality encompassed more than materialism. Whereas no leader today would dare tell us how we should live

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At a mammoth 878 pages, Simon Heffer's new book High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain is not for the faint-hearted. And yet its exorbitant length, not to mention the £30 tag slapped on to it by the publishers, seems a small price to pay for the zeal with which Heffer goes about ransacking the various compartments – political, theological and economic – of what might be called the Victorian Project, and examining the intellectual standpoints of some of the great 19th-century sages he finds clustered within.

For all the chapters given over to what Heffer calls the "doubting mind" and the complexities of religious thought in an age made nervous by Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, his thesis is quite a simple one, for it rests on the discovery that the Victorian idea of "progress" was not solely based on material gain. At one level Victorian society consisted of a band of grimy-fingered sharpers and chancers, political opportunists and beetle-browed industrialists cheerfully sweating their employees at tuppence the hour, but at another it harboured a distinguished senior common room full of "politicians, intellectuals and citizens" who were characterised by what Heffer marks down as "disinterested moral purpose".

What did "disinterested moral purpose" (a quality which Heffer locates most conspicuously in the person of his particular hero, Mr Gladstone) amount to in practice? Essentially it meant agitating for social and political improvement – everything from votes for working men to better drains and education acts – in the hope that these refinements, though excellent in themselves, would ultimately have a moral effect. Thus the newly enfranchised city clerk, living in his model cottage at Roehampton, would not only have more money in his pocket and a better chance of living beyond the age of 50; he would also be – that indefinable entity extolled by every Victorian from Dickens to Matthew Arnold – a "better person", more confident of his responsibilities, more civically minded, more aware of the environment in which he found himself, better qualified to take the decisions on which the successes and failures of his life were based.

Some 130 years later – for Heffer locates the end of this sea change in our national life to about 1880 – it is worth asking what happened to "disinterested moral purpose"? The answer is that in politics, as in many another branch of human activity, it was swiftly superseded by the much more seductive goal of material progress. One of the reasons for this decisive shift lay in the reaction against all things Victorian that set in long before Queen Victoria's death and reached a symbolic high-point in the series of debunking portraits that make up Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918) and their assumption that these outpourings of moral fervour must have something deeply hypocritical at their core. Hence the joke current in the early years of the 20th century in which a non-conformist grocer harangues his assistant as the two of them shut up shop: "Jones." "Yessir." "Have you sanded the sugar?" "Yessir." "Have you watered the treacle?" "Yessir." "Well, come up to prayers."

But what also did for "disinterested moral purpose" was the sheer speed of material advancement in the UK during the period 1900-1950, the collapse of old-style popular culture and community, and an awareness of the shiny new technology-driven future looming across the transatlantic horizon. No politician – no sensible politician anyway – could hope to stem this tide, and the general feeling, even on the puritan left, was that the labouring classes, who had striven so hard for so little reward in the "bad old days", deserved every blandishment that 20th-century capitalism could offer them. The consequence was that come the early 1950s, the era of Macmillan's "Never had it so good" speech and rising living standards, most politicians gave up on moral uplift and confined themselves to cheap mortgages and higher wages all round.

If the conviction that "progress" had a moral element survived, it did so on the paternalist wing of the Conservative Party, which continued to preach the virtues of "duty" and "responsibility", albeit in strictly hierarchical terms, and in that enclave of the Labour Party which clung to its non-conformist roots. The idea of the welfare state, naturally, had a Victorian template; so, although in a way that most Victorians would not have appreciated, did a book like Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism (1956). By the era of Harold Wilson and the white heat of the technological revolution, on the other hand, the Labour Party found itself dominated and undermined by a trades union movement that was almost exclusively concerned with wage differentials, a stand-off whose consequences Ed Miliband is still trying to deal with half a century later.

To all these factors can be added the impact of moral relativism – a concept that few Victorians would have understood – and widespread differences of opinion over what being a better person meant. Doubtless the modern British politician would quite like his or her constituents to be "better people" but, apart from the obvious requirement to obey the law of the land, the MP would run a mile rather than explain the elements of which this moral salubrity might consist. If Mr Gladstone has a spiritual heir then it is probably a politician such as Michael Gove who, whatever one may think of his policies or the manner of their execution, is at any rate one of the first secretaries of state for education in decades to appear to believe that the function of education is not simple utility. To particularise, Mr Gove has made it a point of principle to ensure that from 2015 teenagers sitting the English Literature GCSE will be required to study a Shakespeare play and read a "classic" English novel: not because the knowledge they acquire will procure them a job, but because it may just help them to become more fully rounded individuals, more comfortable in the world they inhabit.

The coalition's fiscal team, alternatively, works on the snouts in the trough principle, which holds that if the electorate is economically satisfied then the politician's job is done, and who, in the current financial situation, can decently blame them? The hulking gap that exists in 21st-century Britain between the material and the moral would have horrified Heffer's band of high-minded exemplars, for they assumed that the two went hand in hand, and that where proper sanitation led enlightenment would follow. In contrast to the kingdom presided over by Gladstone and Disraeli, we inhabit a landscape of extraordinary technological and material sophistication, in which – such is the lack of official interest in how we think, feel and behave – we are increasingly losing our ability to operate.

You don't have to be Matthew Arnold to wonder whether the question we should be asking our leaders is not what they ought to do about rising fuel bills, important though that is, but how, in a fraught and morally occluded world, we ought to be living our lives.

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